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A Jazz Legend's Unforgettable Visit To 'Tell Me More'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Happy New Year.

Over the course of this past week we've been asking contributors and newsmakers to weigh in on what they considered the most important news events of 2009 and the decade. We also share the comments you made over the year about stories that resonated with you. Today, though, we want to do something a little different. The staff wanted to give a second listen to some of our favorite music performances over the past year.

Coming up, we'll hear from two breakout stars - singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson, who has been on tour with Kelly Clarkson of �American Idol� fame. And later, the acoustic duo Sam and Ruby. That is all later.

But first, Jazz pianist and composer Omar Sosa. He is the embodiment of world music. He grew up in Cuba but has lived all over the world, including Ecuador, Spain, and San Francisco. Along the way he soaked up the various sounds and rhythms of the cultures he encounters and teamed up with a range of impressive musicians. Back in April, Sosa along with kalimba player Childo Tomas visited us in NPR's Studio 4A to talk about the album �Across the Divide: A Tale Of Rhythm And Ancestry.� The music seeks to connect the sounds of the African Diaspora with that of the Americas. Sosa began our discussion by telling us how he finds the musicians to collaborate with.

Mr. OMAR SOSA (Jazz Pianist and Composer, Cuba): Sometimes, you see a person in a festival all over the world or in a record. You look for this person, but this person is not available. And most of the time, I hook up with a musician especially with Childo. Now we were for nine year non-stop. And this is one of the way we use to collaborate. Another way is in a dream. Sometime when I sleep, I have some idea. I wake up, I write on a piece of paper, and the next day I say, wow, this is why I don't sleep so well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Wow. Childo Tomas, who plays the bass. But he's also playing today, he's also brought a kalimba with him. Can you tell us a little bit about the instrument. And Childo, will you help us hear it?

Mr. SOSA: We will. Kalimba sounds like this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SOSA: Okay, okay, in United States, we call this instrument thumb piano.

MARTIN: Thumb piano, oh.

Mr. SOSA: In Africa, it's different kind of names, but the meaning is the same. It's always to celebrate some special events or rituals, to communicate with ancestors, and this is one of the voices of the ancestors. For me, it's one of the most beautiful sounds that you can find because you can listen on and on and on. Something I really like is the way every musician developed his own melodies because you never know what going to happen until they play. We don't know what going to happen now until we play.

MARTIN: Okay, we'll let's hear some. Let's hear - I think we're going to hear kalimba in a song, which is "Across Africa (Arrival)." Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Across Africa (Arrival)")

Mr. SOSA: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Omar Sosa. His latest album is called "Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry." This album is a bit of a narrative, you know, not literal - not a literal narrative. Interesting that you had to have started work on it before the election in the United States, right? Did you start on it before?

Mr. SOSA: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

MARTIN: Were you working on it while the election was taking place? Which was, of course, in this country an historic election, the first African-American president, really a son of the Diaspora in every way. Did that historical fact sort of inform the music in any way?

Mr. SOSA: When I started develop the music, one of the things that come out to me is, how we can do music simple but with tradition inside each note of this work. And I think it's a gift for us to have the opportunity to see and live this moment when African-American come out and be a president of United States.

MARTIN: There's always this question of - and one of the reasons I think it's interesting and relevant to this project is that this project is about creating the new, but drawing upon the past. And when it comes to history, oftentimes there's an argument about that. Some people say, well, you know, you need to leave that alone, because that - we don't, you know, we don't want to talk about that because that's all about pain and suffering. We don't want to hear all about that.

Mr. SOSA: Well, but, you know, if you don't listen to elders, if you don't learn the elders, you're never going to come out with something new and fresh. In the Santeria tradition in the religion of (unintelligible) Africa, we need to learn our fathers and grandfathers because they already lived all this here. We need to listen to voices. And music is one easy way to let the people know that tradition is important.

MARTIN: Speaking of fathers and grandfathers, as I mentioned, you were raised in Cuba. Is there anything on the album that feels distinctively Cuban?

Mr. SOSA: Oh, yeah. Well, first, the way I play. It's called Makuta(ph). It's pretty much this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SOSA: It's really African, but we developed in Cuba in and went in our own way. I use, as a link between the lyrics come from the African-American tradition and a new way to play with contemporary harmony. I always close -open my record with a song for Eleggua. We use the "Promised Land." It is an Indian-American prayer.

MARTIN: Well, I think we need to hear it, don't you? Because if we don't, I don't know, something could happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Eleggua.

MARTIN: Eleggua?

Mr. SOSA: Let's play something for Eleggua.

MARTIN: I think we'd better.

Mr. SOSA: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Omar, I must say it's hard to - we're applauding, but this feels like prayer to me.

Mr. SOSA: Thank you. This is the idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Is it - is this how you pray?

Mr. SOSA: Well, yes. It's the way we found to translate the message.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming to spend some time with us today. It's been wonderful.

Mr. SOSA: Thank you. Thank you for give an opportunity to share this music.

MARTIN: What would you like to end our visit on? What shall we play to say a reluctant farewell?

Mr. SOSA: Well, we're going to play another song. Let's play the much traditional rhythm, call Todi dance song.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Omar Sosa was kind enough to join us in NPR's Studio 4A, along with Childo Tomas, who played kalimba and other instruments. To see pictures of the performance and hear full versions of the songs, please check at our Web site at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, soul singer, Eric Hutchinson. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.